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Letters

Vol. 8 No. 12 · 3 July 1986

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Milton’s Republic

SIR: I was intrigued by David Norbrook’s case for Paradise Lost as a political poem (LRB, 5 June). His arguments are very different from those advanced by Tom Paulin in his introduction to the Faber Book of Political Verse – so different that I can address them without compromising my editorial function. About the anthology I must remain silent, as I have done throughout this controversy. My objections to Tom Paulin’s Geoffrey Hill piece were confined to two factual points – the ‘echo’ of Yeats, which was a quotation from the Psalms, and Paulin’s inaccurate metrical analysis of Hill’s sonnet, where he imputed metrical monotony to lines whose metre was demonstrably varied. It was Tom Paulin who chose to present my intervention in these diversionary terms: I have made two catastrophic errors about Geoffrey Hill’s poetry but Craig Raine doesn’t like my anthology of political verse. For similar reasons, ‘metre’ later became ‘diction’ as the correspondence progressed.

David Norbrook is cool and logical enough to see my objection to his first point, which concerns the ‘republican assertiveness’ of Paradise Lost’s ‘very metrics’. There is, of course, no avoiding Milton’s description: ‘an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recovered to Heroic Poem from the troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming’. Clearly, there may be a cryptic innuendo here, but the passage in its entirety is aesthetic and not political. Even were the point conceded, there is still a distinction to be observed between Milton’s republican intent and the actual status of blank verse. It is a subtle distinction, admittedly, but crude distinctions can’t have things their own way all the time. Milton, David Norbrook insists, wants rhyme to be ‘a symbol for all the irrational and luxurious panoply of monarchy and aristocratic and ecclesiastical hierarchies that had gradually weighted down the political forms of the Roman republic and which the English Revolution had begun to sweep away’ – but is it? And is that all? What, one wonders, does it do with all its spare time? Torture radical activists? According to Milton himself, rhyme sets off ‘wretched matter and lame Meter’, when it isn’t vexing, hindering and constraining poets to ‘express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse than else they would have exprest them’. When it isn’t working overtime for Mr Norbrook, then, it is evidently into bondage of a purely literary kind.

And is blank verse a symbol of all things opposite to the ‘luxurious panoply of monarchy and aristocratic and ecclesiastical hierarchies’? After all, the Spaniards and the Italians had ‘rejected Rime both in longer and shorter Works’ without reference to their political situation or its improvement. And aren’t the ‘best English Tragedies’, cited with approval by Milton, somewhat problematically heterogeneous in this symbolic context? It cannot be true that the ‘very metrics’ of Paradise Lost are assertively republican. Intrinsically, blank verse is neutral, like ink or paper. As Milton’s own examples show, its affiliations are promiscuous.

Of Mammon and Beelzebub, David Norbrook remarks: ‘their language can at times sound republican, but there is no room here [in Paulin’s anthology] for the framing episodes in which the essentially theatrical, anti-rational, in short monarchical, character of diabolical political organisation is manifested.’ I think I detect circularity here. Mr Norbrook will correct me if I am wrong. Unless one already believes Paradise Lost to be a political poem directed against monarchists, it is hard to see how ‘theatrical’ and ‘anti-rational’ can be translated so automatically into ‘monarchical’ – without, in short, a great deal being gained in the translation. Theatricality and anti-rationality, I have noticed, are not qualities exclusively earmarked for any particular political persuasion.

It worries me, too, that the devils ‘can at times sound republican’. Perhaps it should worry David Norbrook more than it appears to? The difficulty with presenting Beelzebub as a monarchist ‘working to erode a collective spirit in favour of giving supreme power to one charismatic leader’ is not only that Beelzebub puts his proposals to the vote, advising ‘all circumspection’ ‘in our suffrage’, but also that he is so clearly against the supreme power of another charismatic leader called God.

I found David Norbrook’s account of Milton’s presentation of God in his heaven clever but implausible. It is always difficult to argue convincingly from what an author didn’t do. Milton, he tells us, ‘weakens the poem’s power by refusing to surround God with the conventional courtly theatricality of the Baroque Heaven’. I cannot myself see that Milton would have strengthened his presentation by such conventional additions. Put like that, David Norbrook’s argument looks a little flimsy.

Milton’s presentation is surely explained by his theological disposition. W.H. Auden affected to find religious poetry embarrassing, except the most liturgical kind. Milton, a serious theologian and a shrewd poet, felt this objection genuinely and foresaw that any concrete presentation of God was liable to be ludicrous. In De Doctrina Christiana, he writes: ‘It is better therefore to contemplate the Deity, and to conceive of him, not with reference to human passions, that is, after the manner of men, who are never weary of framing subtle imaginations respecting him …’

So where do I stand? I stand unpersuaded.

Craig Raine
Oxford

SIR: In his interesting review of Tom Paulin’s Faber Book of Political Verse, David Norbrook describes how Paulin classes Dryden among the ‘conservative’, ‘monarchist’ writers (in which company Dryden ‘seems a less ambiguous figure’ than Spenser, Shakespeare or Jonson), and suggests that ‘Absalom and Achitophel’ illustrates Dryden’s ‘nostalgia for an organic society free of the disease of politics and commerce’.

Might I suggest that some of your readers may be interested in looking at the discussion of these matters in my recently-published study, John Dryden. I argue that if one attends to the full range of Dryden’s work – not just the hackneyed ‘public’ poems – and if one is sensitive to the enormous qualitative discrepancies, not only between different areas of Dryden’s oeuvre as a whole but also within individual works, it is evident that, whatever his views may have been as a private citizen, Dryden the poet cannot be at all accurately described as an unambiguous conservative royalist who believed wholeheartedly in an organic body politic and regarded political dissension as a disease which must be cured. Paulin’s inclusion of the whole of ‘Absalom’ in his anthology – the poem has some deservedly famous lines, but also contains some conspicuously slack and unconvincing writing – unfortunately will do little to discourage the undiscriminating approach which has for so long impeded a full appreciation of Dryden’s genius. In his best poetic moments, Dryden does not write from a position of simple conservative parti-pris, nor does he attempt to evade or sidestep political questions. At his best, Dryden encompasses and subsumes his interest in politics within his investigation of a much larger subject, the subject which has always been poetry’s business: the nature of Man, and ‘truth, not individual and local, but general and operative’. Dryden’s fearlessly exhilarating explorations of that subject involved him in entertaining and relishing some very subversive thoughts indeed about all the things which the textbooks tell us he valued most dearly – monarchy, Christianity, Toryism, peace, stability. To lump Dryden among ‘the conservatives’ is simply to ignore the full implications of what he’s saying in his best verse – which is, I believe, what most people have been doing for over a century.

David Hopkins
University of Bristol

Modernisms

SIR: Nobody enjoys an adverse notice, and Professor Stead has replied when still so cross as to be rather silly (Letters, 19 June). His suggestion that I failed to read his book with care is offensive, but the rest of what he has to say is really neither here nor there. Having thought very well of The New Poetic, I expected much of this new book, and was disappointed when it turned out to be manifestly inferior, much less useful, and oddly self-indulgent. It may tell us something about Stead that he thinks I could have disliked his book because he makes critical remarks on some pages I wrote thirty years ago.

Any report of his views which fails to give ipsissima verba is condemned as inaccurate. He says I misrepresent his remarks on the politics of Eliot and Pound, but his further explanation simply shows that I didn’t. He fusses about my saying that he has been ‘teaching’ The Waste Land for quarter of a century when I should have confined myself to saying he was offering public explanations as to how one should read it only 22 years ago. I’m puzzled that Stead, in his tantrum, should mistake my disappointment for a tantrum, and that he takes comfort in the absurd supposition that in liking the other books under review better than his I was patronising their authors. The fact, however sad, is that Shattuck’s book belongs to an entirely different class of criticism; and if Stead will compare what he says about Four Quartets now with what he said in 1964, he may be compelled to consider whether the same might be said of The New Poetic.

Frank Kermode
Cambridge

Darling Clem

SIR: Trevor Burridge takes issue (Letters, 5 June) with my review of his biography of Attlee. My comments, he claims, boil down to the charge that Attlee was no Superman, and are best explained by my longing for a new Lloyd George to deliver us from the rule of the Iron Lady.

Not so. My argument was that nostalgia for yesterday’s radicalism, and regret at the passing of the English gentleman, have conspired to inflate Attlee’s reputation. No one has a higher regard for Attlee as a decent old stick than I have. He and King George VI proved that Britain was a land in which Mr Pooter could get to the top, if only by accident. This was a heartening democratic development and it will be a happy world when politics are so banal that aspiring young Pooters, like Dr Burridge and myself, can safely be put in charge of everything. But in the rough and tumble of British politics as they used to be in the bad old days, Attlee was an uninspired and uninspiring man who tended to follow his party rather than to lead it. No Superman was required to steer the Labour Government away from the rocks after 1945: but a politician of greater force and imagination might have done it.

Paul Addison
Department of History, University of Edinburgh

Making truth

SIR: Richard Rorty (LRB, 17 April) suggests, quoting Heidegger, that the force of Nietzsche’s arguments is greatest when his ‘metaphysics of power’ are discarded. May I suggest that Rorty himself has swallowed a ‘metaphysics of contingency’ which could be discarded equally happily, leaving many of his insights intact. An organising principle is needed for any work of scope. ‘Contingency’ plays this role in Rorty’s pieces and he has used it to devastating effect on language, the self and, in a promised third article, community. But it is not clear that he sees ‘contingency’ as merely this. In fact, one fears that he could, at any moment, ‘cap up’ the initial letter and provide the manifesto for a voguish new school of ‘Contingentism’.

Rorty has previously drawn a distinction between systematic philosophers and those, such as the later Wittgenstein, whom he dubbed ‘edifying’. The latter stand at the sidelines of any particular contemporary philosophical debate – gadflies challenging the very notion of philosophy as a cooperative and progressive discipline. By temperament, Rorty himself would seem to lie somewhere between these two types: perhaps this is his strength in subtly understanding what makes both sides really tick. But, for my money, he is at his best when he wants, as ‘edifying’ philosophers do, to keep space open for the sense of wonder which poets can sometimes cause. His elevation of ‘contingency’ into an overarching concept simply smacks of a bit of bad systematic thinking. With its apparently pessimistic overtones, no wonder it provokes criticism that Rorty is ‘retailing the same fashionable arithmetic of despair’.

Victor Smart
Observer, London EC4

Untheory

SIR: In describing ‘developments’ in ‘the war between philosophy and poetry’, Alexander Nehamas (LRB, 22 May) ignores the fact that it is largely conducted by non-poets – although his review inevitably demonstrates it. ‘Poets today have struck back,’ he announces, ‘by arguing that philosophy itself is a species of poetry.’ ‘Poets’ have done no such thing; and since the professor means ‘critics’, or ‘theorists’, or ‘philosophers’, then that is what he ought to call them, unless he believes that they too are all somehow ‘poets’, in which case the name wasn’t worth his casual appropriation.

C.J. Cook
Cambridge

Irish Extraction

SIR: It strikes me that perhaps Nicolas Walter is making too much of the ancestry attributed to Major Yeates in the Irish R.M. stories (Letters, 5 June). For Irish, in this instance, I think we read Anglo-Irish, which isn’t quite the same thing – and whatever his nationality, Major Yeates is at a sufficient distance from the natives of Skebawn to find their antics bemusing: this is surely the point. If Somerville and Ross had intended their hero’s ‘Irishness’ to contribute irony to the stories, they’d have underlined it: as far as I can remember, the matter isn’t brought up again after the first mention.

Patricia Craig
London SE3

Hääyöaie

SIR: Orgasm in Finnish is orgasmi, or, if you prefer a home-grown alternative, hekumanhuippu (‘peak of sensual pleasure’). Your reviewer Don Coles (LRB, 5 June) should know better than to take D.M. Thomas’s linguistic follies seriously. The latter’s hääyöaie means ‘wedding-night intention’, not something even a Finn would cry out in ecstasy. The umlauts which aroused Mr Coles’s concern are quite harmless (there’s even a hidden one in the y, prounounced ü): in Finnish they tend to come in clusters, like bats.

Keith Bosley
Slough

Uncle Clarence

SIR: Mr Bennett (LRB, 5 June) should not think that his Uncle Clarence’s death was pointless or that ‘nobody could say why these men died.’ Any competent historian of modern European could tell him. German foreign policy since the time of Bismark, coupled with Prussian ambition and a neurotic Kaiser, made that war inevitable. It may be tempting to think ‘they died in vain,’ but one can also imagine the outcome of abandoned treaty obligations, territorial guarantees and European comity. It was not the fault of the pre-1914 policymakers that Versailles was botched and the contest had to be resumed later. Private Peel played his part, nor is his glory blotted out, at any rate not in my eyes. There is glory in a faithful and enduring army; the fortitude of the British Army is its glory.

C.A. Latimer
Woodbridge, Suffolk

SIR: I much enjoyed Alan Bennett’s evocative essay on his Uncle Clarence until the final paragraph, where he writes, ‘Nobody could say now why these men died,’ and refers to the Second World War as ‘the one with a purpose’. Now I always thought that the purpose of the Great War on the Western Front was clear enough: to shift the German Army from French and Belgian soil and, to quote my late father (Private, Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, gassed and wounded at Passchendaele), ‘to shove the buggers back into Germany’. This the Allied armies eventually succeeded in doing. Had they not done so, then the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, where Germany demanded large tracts of Russian territory as well as a substantial proportion of Russia’s industrial and agricultural resources, may serve as a guide to what might have happened had there been a German victory in the West. This view was supported by Fritz Fischer’s study of German expansionary war aims in his Griff nach der Weltmacht as long ago as 1961.

The ‘futility’ myth, I have tended to assume, was the creation of poetically-inclined (though very brave) junior officers and post-war metropolitan literary intellectuals, a myth unlikely to seduce someone brought up in Leeds, who shopped at the Co-op, into thinking that his Uncle Clarence died for nothing. Perhaps all that Wilfred Owen at Leeds Modern School is to blame, rather than, one hopes, the degree in Modern History at Oxford.

D.G. Wright
Shipley, Bradford

Alan Bennett writes: Beg pardon. I had thought there were faults on both sides. When the next lot comes I hope Messrs Latimer and Wright will be around to tell us why we did the proper thing there too. Bags not be in the same cave.

Checkmate

SIR: Michael Neve’s discussion of animal sexuality (LRB, 22 May) had its moments. Still, in his lust to score anti-American points, he makes a big cultural deal out of a phrase he fundamentally misunderstands. I refer here to his citation of Bettyann Kevles’s sentence: ‘This checking-out period is called courtship.’ Whereupon, the overheated Neve writes: ‘Life is now a teeming Holiday Inn.’ Unless I’m seriously mistaken, ‘check out’ doesn’t have anything to do with dying: rather, it means ‘to inspect’ or ‘to examine’ something. Thus the pedestrian in New York is bombarded with requests from street vendors to ‘check out’ their wares. I don’t imagine George Orwell or Dwight Macdonald would have been ecstatic about this particular usage, but it’s hardly a linguistic atrocity. More importantly, Mr Neve just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Neve’s anti-Americanism continues to get him into trouble. Later on in his review he writes: ‘Personally, I’m less and less convinced, but I am writing with a sense of dreading America that sometimes overtakes the all too measurable European.’ I can’t for the life of me figure out what that sentence means, but I do know that it’s an example of bad, pretentious writing.

Richard King
Nottingham

When an American offers to check out of a hotel, he is not deemed to be offering to investigate it.

Editor, ‘London Review’

Domesday Matters

SIR: I read with interest the article ‘1086, 1866, 1986 and all that’ by John Dodgson (LRB, 22 May). In it there was a brief reference to the BBC Domesday Project which implied that it was a kind of event at Wembley. The Project is in fact a new survey of the United Kingdom involving about a million people which will be issued on two interactive videodiscs.

Amanda Wood
BBC Television, Bilton House, 54-58 Uxbridge Road, London W5 2ST

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